Tundra Wilderness Tour, Denali, May 2016

Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park.  Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station.  That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.

The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens.  When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness.  At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats.  The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.

Tundra Tour Buses HDR Deep 2

Our driver was great.  He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since.  He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers.  For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc.  We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.

One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out.  That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.

The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.

Moose Color Efx Ektachrome 100 and Detail Extractor

The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes.  This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park.  Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths.  Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.

The next sighting was a ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration.  Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken.  One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken.  The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.

Ptarmigan Color Efx Fuji Velvia 100 Foliage

Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali.  Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds.  Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other.  We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs.  Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.

Grizzly in Road Revealing Detail Foliage

Next up were a herd of Dall sheep.  Dall sheep are quite common in Denali.  They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.

Dall Sheep HDR Outdoor 2

Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour.  The rugged landscape was breathtaking.  One of the high points was Polychrome Pass.  Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour.  The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.

Polychrome Pass HDR Deep 2

Caribou are quite common in Denali.  We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape.  This was the best I could do with the Caribou.

Caribou Ektachrome 100 and Foliage

We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station.  The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points.  From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou.  But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road.  After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”

All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent.  If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.

 

Yukon Territory, May 2016

One of the things we were most excited about when we booked the Alaska cruise was the opportunity to see some of the last true wilderness areas in the world.  Our excursion to the Yukon territory let us do just that.  It also gave us the opportunity to see wildlife, snuggle puppies, and ride a historic train.

We took a bus from Skagway along the Klondike Highway.  We made a few stops along the way so everyone could get out and enjoy a beautiful day and the spectacular scenery.  Along the way we crossed an unusual bridge, the Captain William Moore Bridge, an earthquake-proof suspension bridge.  It’s only anchored on one side, so if the ground shifts due to an earthquake the other side will move freely.

Captain William Moore Bridge HDR Dark

The scenery was amazing.  I would have never imagined the amount of greenery and blooms that we saw in May in the Yukon.  There was still plenty of ice on the ground but there were plenty of signs of spring as well.

The main destination on the excursion was Caribou Crossing, a tourist stop not far from the little town of Carcross.  Carcross, by the way, was once named Caribou Crossing, but the town changed its name to Carcross to differentiate it from the other six towns in the Yukon named Caribou Crossing.

We had a nice lunch at Caribou Crossing and then explored the taxidermy museum.  We were not excited about taxidermy but I will say the museum was really interesting and the taxidermy was some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Caribou Crossing was also our first opportunity to interact with sled dogs.  The sled dogs at Caribou Crossing are racing dogs and are a good bit smaller than working sled dogs, the National Park Service sled dogs, for instance.  We got to pet on some of the adult dogs, watch a team pull a cart filled with tourists, and pet on puppies.

After our time at Caribou Crossing we took a short ride up the highway to Emerald Lake, a lake known for its intense green color.  Quite beautiful.

Emerald Lake HDR Outdoor 1

Our last stop before connecting with the train ride back to Skagway was the small town of Carcross.  Carcross has been the home to Tlingit and Tagish First Nations people for at least 4,500 years.  The town of roughly 300 residents and is where we caught the train.

After a quick stop in Carcross we hopped on the bus to catch the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad for our trip back to Skagway.  We were delayed for a few minutes so we could observe a black bear that was scavenging along the highway.  It was our first bear sighting of the cruise.

Black Bear Color Efx Detail and Vignette

Black bears can be any color, like this ginger colored bear.  Similarly, Brown bears can range from black to a unique blush color.  Black bears are smaller that brown bears and are missing the large hump over their front shoulders.  Also, black bears don’t have the dished out nose like brown bears do.

Finally, we were ready to board the train for our ride back to Skagway.  The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is an N-scale that had its origin in the Yukon Gold Rush.  The railroad was started in 1898 and when it opened in 1900 it supplanted the Chilkoot trail as the primary route into the Yukon.  Today it’s primarily a tourist train but does make several stops along the way to pick up hikers, campers and off-gridders who need a ride into Skagway.

The train ride is one of the more popular excursions on the cruise lines and it’s no wonder.  The trip was enjoyable and the train ran through some of the most beautiful scenery in North America.

Juneau, Alaska

The second port of call on our Alaska cruise was Juneau, the only state capital in the United States has no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska (there is ferry access for cars).  Nestled at the base of Mount Juneau and adjacent to Mount Rogers, Juneau may be the most beautiful capital city in the country.  Waterfalls tumble down Mount Juneau and mountain goats and dall sheep can frequently be spotted on the surrounding mountains.

Juneau PC Landscape Ektachrome 100 Graduated ND

My wife and I are dog lovers so we were excited to see the monument to Patsy Ann, a local legend named “the Official Greeter of Juneau, Alaska” by mayor Isadore Goldstein in 1934.  Although deaf from birth, Patsy Ann could unerringly sense when a ship was arriving and the dock where the ship would moor.  Although owned and cared for by a local dentist, Patsy Ann was more of a dog about town, making her rounds to the shops and businesses around the docks and eventually choosing to live at the Longshoreman’s Hall.  She continued her job of official greeter until 1942, when she passed away at the age of thirteen.  Upon her death her coffin was lowered from the dock into the Gastineau Channel near where her monument stands.

Patsy Ann Ektachrome 64 HDR Outdoor 2

The weather was beautiful on the day we visited Juneau and we had a great time on our excursion, a whale watching tour on Stephens Passage and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier.  The whale watching tour started at Auke Bay and there was a short bus ride to get there.  On the way we saw one of the most remarkable sights of the trip.  We passed over a small creek and saw about fifty eagles standing at the edge of the creek.  As an Easterner who thinks seeing one eagle is a special event this was amazing.

The whale watching tour was great. Although it was very early in the season we quickly located a pod of six orcas.  We also saw several humpback whales, a group of stellar sea lions and several eagles.

From the whale watching tour we went to Mendenhall Glacier.  The glacier is part of the Juneau Ice Field and is located across Mendenhall Lake and about a mile from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the first U.S. Forestry Service Visitor Center built in the nation.  When it was opened in 1962 the visitor center was located at the foot of the glacier.  Due to the retreat of the glacier it’s now a mile from the visitor center to the glacier.  Another popular sight is Nugget Falls, a 377-foot waterfall adjacent to the glacier.  Inside the visitor center we were able to use spotter scopes to view mountain goats on the side of the Mount Bullard.  It was our first view of mountain goats.

After our visit to Mendenhall Glacier we returned to Juneau for a quick visit to the Red Dog Saloon, recognized by the Alaska Legislature as the oldest man-made tourist attraction in Juneau.  We sat at the bar and had a great view of the memorabilia displayed on the wall, including a gun that Wyatt Earp checked but failed to claim on his way out of the bar.  With live piano music, the bar was a fun place to enjoy lunch with a beer, or in my wife’s case, a duck fart, Alaska’s original layered shot named for the sound you make when you drink it.  Red Dog Saloon is very touristy but a fun time was had  by all.